Tuesday, 9 July 2013
Too often political leaders are going to become timid and intimidated by the usual avalanche of opinion polls when difficult decisions are taken. The whole quality of government and governance starts to decline as political leaders have to look constantly over their shoulders.
K Rudd announcing leadership reforms yesterday
The events of the last week have shown two important, yet unappreciated, aspects of Australian politics today. The first is the degree to which Abbott and Gillard have propped each other up over the last three years. The second is that far from wanting a seamless transition, Rudd has every interest in accentuating the break from the past, and Labor.
There is no better example of how cosy the relationship between the two parties has been for the last three years than the Coalition’s ability to get away with banging on about turning back the boats while Indonesia has made perfectly clear that it couldn’t happen. Even when the Indonesian Ambassador was sent to spell it out to the Australian media that not only was the Coalition not able to do it, but that it had never even been raised with them, the Liberals could still carry on as though nothing had happened. Before 27 June, the only one who pointed out the obvious was Rudd as a backbencher. Now that he has resumed power, he has picked up the weapon that has been lying on the ground and thrown it straight back.
The Liberals response has been all over the place. On one side have been Bishop and Howard calling Rudd reckless and irresponsible with Bishop saying that of course the Coalition would not act unilaterally. On the other side has been Morrison saying that they would, and upping the ante with talk of using the military option to turn the boats around.
While contradictory, what both sides have in common is that they are talking as though this is pre-2007. Bishop and Howard are talking of Rudd as though he is an opposition leader and putting the Indonesian relationship under threat – as though he couldn’t just go to Jakarta and get from SBY exactly the communique he wanted. Morrison’s military rhetoric not only fails to account how the political situation has changed since 2007 that would support such action, but also seems to forget the basic rule of politics: what can sound tough and conviction politics in government can sound flaky and risky in opposition.
The inability of the Gillard government to take advantage of the Indonesian angle was not because they were dumb. It simply reflected its view of the electorate that meant any nuance or “softening” in asylum seeker rhetoric was political death. This view still carried on in the new government with Carr talking about economic refugees, a stupid move as it raised the instant question as Tony Jones asked Carr, and Leigh Sales asked Rudd, on whether that implied a total breakdown in the existing screening processes run under the current government. It was no surprise that Rudd, and more interestingly Burke, distanced themselves from it and no one is talking about it now.
Carr’s lack of political sense sums up the current ineptitude of the NSW Right that was supposed to be the pragmatic wing of the party that knows how to win elections. As we know in NSW, and saw translated to the federal scene three years ago, this is no longer the case. If even the most pragmatic section of the party is out of touch, it gives a sense on how much an electoral liability much of the current Labor party is, and it is this that is driving the shake-up both in NSW and on the federal leadership.
At first sight the timing of the NSW intervention seems odd. While everyone in Labor acknowledges the need for reform, it was thought that it would happen after the election, preferably in opposition. Yet Rudd has announced it within a week of taking over. It is not as though he is announcing it early to get it out of the way, it is likely to carry on long after the election. It could be argued that being seen to tackle the NSW branch is good politics now as the branch is on the nose and it will allow Rudd to distance himself from the corruption hearings. Leaving aside that the latest polls show quite a healthy bounce back in NSW (curious given Rudd is perceived as “soft” on asylum seekers) and the urgency is much less, this view tends to under-estimate exactly what Rudd is up to.
One of the difficulties of following what is happening in the NSW intervention is that it is being driven by two forces with very different aims. On one side there is what might be called the Compromise group, whose goals are best set out in the recent Quarterly Essay by Latham. In it he describes the NSW Right as the ballast of the party, and that any reform must aim at restoring the faction to restore order in the national party. The leader of this is arguably the NSW Secretary Sam Dastyari who has looked to bring in reforms such as primaries for pre-selecting candidates. It was Dastyari who was instrumental in pulling together the fractured NSW Right to restore Rudd.
However, reform is also being driven by what might be called the True Reformers, whose outlook was best set out by Hawker and of course led by Rudd. Here the interest is not in maintaining the existing structures but sweeping them away to move to the populist Social Democratic European model.
It would seem that in as much as the Compromise group is more in line with existing party structures (such as they exist) that they have the upper hand. However, there are two problems. The first is that even moving as far as they have, they are not taking the bulk of the unions with them and in doing so have undermined their own position that historically had rested on their ability to marry the union movement with the needs of the economy for electoral viability (Shorten’s divorce from the AWU is a deeply moving example of this problem).
The other problem they face, of course, is that the inspiring project to revive the NSW Right has absolutely no interest to anyone else. Against that Rudd has, of course, the broader appeal of being against union representation as not “modern” and can go much further with public backing.
Just how far is shown by the terms of the intervention. Commentators have noted that many of the reforms are piecemeal and more reflect the Compromise group’s wish to keep the status quo intact. This is true; unless one has a touching faith in the role of Conference, there is not really much threat to the power bases in the party from the reform.
But while technically there is not much to shout about, it misses how it is being politically presented. What is extraordinary is the way that Rudd has linked union representation in the party with the outlandish corruption highlighted by ICAC. This is rather unfair. In fact the influence of such groups as property developers is more a result of the declining influence of the unions in the party. Not because the unions were some sort of watchdog, by any means, but because without the unions being a significant force, big business has little interest in NSW Labor. As a result, NSW Labor has become the home for the smaller end of town, with property developers crawling over a state Labor government like it was a glorified city council.
This means that while the technical terms of the intervention may be limited, the political way it is being posed suggests a momentum beyond what Dastyari intended. Maybe he has a sense of that following the announcement of the other reform that, reportedly, he was kept out of the loop on: the changes to electing the leadership.
The changes to the rules, which primarily apply to sitting Labor Prime Ministers, have an immediate electoral necessity as it neutralises the Coalition’s charge that the electorate may vote for popular Rudd, but they may end up getting what the considerably less popular Labor party puts in his place.
In reality, the changes formalise what has already happened. For Rudd to return, the power brokers have already lost control of a Parliamentary Party worrying more about electoral defeat than annoying their union backers. Rudd’s back down on appointing the Ministry by handing it back as a sop to Caucus allows him to reinforce its cleavage from the union base. In doing so he makes them, like the grouping around the NSW Secretary, reliant on being in government and electoral viability than the more enduring union base that has financed them for a century. Yet that electoral viability in turn rests on distancing from the old Labor and the political system in general, as Rudd is the best able to do.
The Compromise group may think they can stop halfway, but the logic of what is now happening suggests they can’t. They thought they had control over Rudd by getting him to consult with his colleagues, but as they found out yesterday, all that means is that his new leadership grouping presents them with a radical overhaul they can’t oppose. Rudd appears to have learnt lessons in exile, but it doesn’t appear the main one was to consult more with his colleagues. They thought they were getting a chastened Rudd, what they look as though they now have is Rudd Unleashed.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 9 July 2013.Filed under State of the parties, Tactics